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Marching for Human Rights . . . and with Song
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Where were you on January 21, 2017? There’s a good chance that many readers were marching that day, with the Women’s Marches taking place not only all over the United States but all over the world. My sister and fellow teachers rode all night on a bus from central Florida to be on the Mall in Washington, D.C., along with so many other colleagues and friends from our field of study. My grandnieces Audrey and Lila marched in Raleigh, and I knew marchers in Denver, Chicago, New York, Boston, St. Petersburg, Seattle, Portland, Austin, and Miami . . . and I bet you did too.
Since I’m facing knee surgery in a week or so, I didn’t make it to D.C. but instead joined a crowd of thousands of women, men, and children rallying and marching in the town of Santa Rosa, California. (Sister marches in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles drew more than a million others.) I drove the two hours to Santa Rosa with Shirley Heath and her son Brice, visiting from Chicago, and we joined a positively upbeat crowd heading toward City Hall, bearing signs saying “Make America Think Again,” “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” and one of my favorites, held by a girl of about 10, saying “GIRLS ARE STRONG.”
We stood shoulder to shoulder amid a downpour (that eventually cleared) and listened to speakers like Representative Jared Huffman (wearing a pink hat of his own). But more powerfully, we listened to music and to song. We held hands and lifted our voices in “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Hallelujah.” The music brought us closer together and took me back to my college years in the sixties when I was marching to support the admission of African American students to the all-white University of Florida Law School. Not to mention other issues related to civil rights.
Marty Rutherford, me, and Shirley Brice Heath
A sign that gave us a chuckle
Fifty-some years later, I marched and sang again, thinking all the while of the generations of students I have had the privilege of teaching: I always remember that teaching students to write also means teaching them to sing, to craft words and messages that contain truth, to be sure, but truth that is beautiful, that is creative, that ripples out like a smooth stone skipping across the water. I don’t expect (or want) students to send the messages I want or need to send; I can do that on my own. I want them to bring the spirit of song, of music, to their own messages—and I love it when they do so not in prose alone but in poetry set to music, whether it’s folk, rock, hip hop, or jazz.
So as I was marching for women’s rights, for human rights, and for social justice for all, I was thinking about the songs we were singing and about the effect music has on all of us, on the power of music to help bridge our differences or to explain ourselves to each other. I came home and listened to the Kronos Quartet playing Terry Riley’s minimalist classic “One Earth, One People, One Love.” And I listened to a CD of some of my students’ spoken word poetry, including wonderful vocal sound effects.
Later that evening I heard from a friend who had been marching in London, and she sent along a link that I want to share with you and that I hope to pass on to students for years to come. It’s by Karine Polwart, a Scottish songwriter and poet, performing at the January 20 opening of the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, with a song composed especially for the event called “I Burn but I Am Not Consumed.” I won’t spoil it by describing it because I want everyone to hear this beautiful and haunting voice unmediated. As you listen, think about the research that went into composing this song/poem/essay. Think about the craft and care with which each word is chosen. Think about how the creative spirit can give us a new perspective on the most contemporary of events, such as an inauguration. And think about passing on a love, even a passion, for words and for music to our students who will be making their own marks on our world.
So here is “I Burn, but I am Not Consumed.”
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